Orange County Public Schools
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Billions for Building

June 9, 2022
Large, growing school systems are in a continual race to construct and maintain the facilities needed to provide students high-quality learning environments.

The United States has more than 13,400 public school districts. The overwhelming majority—more than 11,000—have enrollments of less than 5,000 students and operate and maintain just a handful of campuses. In those districts, constructing a new school may be a once-in-a-generation event.

Then there are the school systems at the other end of the spectrum: sprawling enterprises that need dozens if not hundreds of campuses to accommodate tens of thousands of students; where no one blinks an eye at a billion-dollar bond issue and a crammed calendar of capital improvement projects; where new construction may add 5,000 classroom seats in just one summer.

In these districts, planning, constructing and renovating facilities are embedded into the regular course of business, not a special occasion. Providing that volume of classroom space comes with its own headaches, but one of the benefits of building so many schools is that you get pretty good at it.

“Experience is extremely valuable in any endeavor, and it is very valuable here, too,” says Rory Salimbene, acting chief facilities officer for the Orange County (Fla.) school district, which has more than 200 campuses that provide classroom space for over 200,000 students. “We don’t come upon many issues that we haven’t seen before and don’t know how to deal with.”

21st-century construction

When a school district covers a lot of territory, and that territory is experiencing continual growth, facility planners will be kept busy finding spots for new campuses and breaking ground. That’s the case in Orange County, Fla. For decades, it has been one of the more rapidly growing county in one of the more rapidly growing states. From 1980 to 2020, Census figures show Florida population has more than doubled, from 9.7 million to 21.5 million, and Orange County population has tripled—from 471,016 to 1,429,908.

And because Florida has countywide public school systems, the burden of addressing Orange County’s extraordinary demand for more classrooms falls on one district. To provide classrooms for a student population that has doubled since 1990, Orange County Public Schools has spent the early years of the 21st century constructing new campuses and renovating existing ones. From 2003 to 2021, the district says, it has opened 59 new schools to address crowding and it has renovated or replaced 132 existing schools.

And they’re not done. Between 2022 and 2030, the plans call for building another 20 campuses. That includes five schools—three elementary, one K-8, and one middle—that will open later this summer and bring the number of campuses in the district to 210.

Money to build

As one considers the volume of construction that the Orange County district has completed in the last 20 years, the question that immediately occurs to other education administrators is “How can they afford it?” Many schools and universities have urgent needs for new or upgraded facilities, but the money made available to them is insufficient to pursue such projects—funding controlled by state legislatures or other government entities is inadequate; voters are unwilling to approve property tax increases to pay for capital improvements; or school boards opt to allocate funds to areas they deem more pressing.

But in the Orange County district, facility planners have been able to secure enough money for construction without those obstacles.

“We’re fortunate to have the funds to do what we need,” Salimbene says.

The booming nature of Orange County’s economy helps generate funding that isn’t available to less thriving areas. Most of the money to build and renovate schools comes from a half-cent county sales tax earmarked for school construction and impact fees imposed on new development.

School systems in other areas benefit from sales tax revenue, but only the Orange County area has Disney World, Epcot, Universal Studios and other tourist magnets. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic decimated travel and tourism, more than 75 million people visited metro Orlando, and they came with money to spend. From January 2003, when the county’s half-cent sales tax for school construction began, through June 2021, the district has received $3.5 billion, and 55% of the revenue comes from visitors to the county.

Impact fees, imposed on new developments to help defray the cost of infrastructure improvements brought on by the development, also bolster the budget for school construction. Orange County Public Schools collected $61.1 million in impact fees in 2020-21. In many cases, developers recognize the value of having school campuses near the homes and businesses they are building and often provide the district with potential school sites in return for impact fee credits.

“Most of our property that we get for new schools is property set aside by the developer,” Salimbene says.

Another advantage of having sufficient funding for facilities is that the district is able to prioritize needs with a minimum of political machinations an din-fighting.

“Because of what we’ve been able to do with renovations and replacements,” Salimbene says, “we’re generally able to spend money where the most urgent need is, without having to worry about “Is it in this [board] member’s district?” We don’t have those kind of pressures.”

Plenty of practice

After building so many schools, the Orange County facilities department has had years to anticipate and solve problems that may arise in a typical project.

“The processes have been refined over time; we produce consistent results,” Salimbene says. “We’ve never not had a school ready for its scheduled opening. It’s because of that experience we’ve gained over the years of doing it over and over again.”

The district also regularly conducts facility condition assessment to keep on top of how its schools are aging and when repairs are needed.

“We do it about every five years,” Salimbene says. “It’s a tool we use to forecast renovation requirements—when I need a new roof or a new air conditioning system.”

The number of projects the district has completed also has give the facilities staff a greater awareness of the quality of contractors and vendors available in Central Florida

Evolving prototypes

Orange County is able to streamline the design process for new schools by adopting prototype designs that are repeated several times. The district now is working to develop new prototypes.

“We’ve been using the prototype for elementary for more than a decade,” Salimbene says.

During that time, the shooting attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., ratcheted up concerns throughout the state about school security. So Orange County officials are updating their prototypes to address those concerns, as well as incorporate a growing emphasis on sustainability in school designs.

“We decided, ‘Let’s more or less start with a clean sheet of paper’ and see if we can’t make improvements in what we’re doing,” Salimbene says

Pandemic response

The Orange County district has had to deal with many obstacles in the hundreds of facility projects it has carried out, but “the pandemic was a new one,” Salimbene says.

“It has impacted some of the renovation work,” he says. “Everything we see on the renovation side is surprisingly expensive. There’s been some significant escalation to what we’ve previously estimated. For some materials, the delivery times have been stretched out.”

But the district is on track to have the five schools that have just been built ready to open this summer.

“We have been fortunate in timing with the schools that we’re opening this summer,” Salimbene says. “For the most part we’ve gotten out ahead of the more significant issues that we’ve seen in the supply chain. As we’ve gotten down to the end, some new issue comes up every week. But we have always targeted early June for completion of new schools to give a little buffer before schools open. So we certainly have weathered the storm.”

Kennedy, senior editor, can be reached at [email protected].


Future development in Forney

Even as the cost of constructing modern school facilities climbs, it’s still rare for a single school system’s bond request to surpass $1 billion. And when a price tag gets to be that large, the district in question is usually one of the nation’s largest, with plenty of facilities to build and maintain, and a growing number of students to accommodate.

But on the first Saturday of May, when dozens of Texas school districts asked voters to the polls to approve bond proposals for facility upgrades, the largest request came from the modestly sized (at least for now) Forney Independent School District.

Enrollment statistics for 2020-21 from the National Center for Education Statistics show that the Forney school district, about 20 miles east of Dallas, was the 98th largest in Texas, with 12,765 students.

But Forney was growing, and the district sought and won approval in 2019 of a $623 million bond proposal. It has provided funds to build four elementary schools, a combined middle/intermediate grade campus, and career college and career facility that Forney has dubbed “the OC” for Opportunity Center.

Then, in 2022, the descriptions of growth in Forney began to carry a more urgent tone—“staggering” and “unprecedented.” The district said that more than 9,750 homes had been built in the district in the last five years, and more than 28,000 home lots have been approved for construction or are in the planning stages.

Student numbers had risen to 14,349 in fall 2021, and the latest projections said that enrollment would soar to more than 35,000 by 2031.

So the district placed a $1.29 billion bond proposal on the May ballot, and voters approved it by comfortable margin.

It will provide funds for an additional five elementary/early childhood schools, four middle/intermediate schools, a third high school and other facility upgrades.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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